Friday, October 24, 2014

game preview: North Carolina


Date/Time: Saturday, October 25; 12:30

TV: ESPN3, ACC Net.

Record against the Heels: 54-60-4

Last meeting: UNC 45, UVA 14; 11/9/13, Chapel Hill

Last weekend: Duke 20, UVA 13; UNC 48, GT 43

Line: UVA by 7

Injury report:

Virginia:

OUT: C Jackson Matteo, CB Demetrious Nicholson, OG Eric Tetlow, OT Jay Whitmire
DOUBTFUL: None
QUESTIONABLE: OG Ryan Doull
PROBABLE: None

North Carolina:

OUT: RB Conner Gonet
DOUBTFUL: RB Elijah Hood
QUESTIONABLE: OT R.J. Prince
PROBABLE: OT Kiaro Holts, WR Kendrick Singleton, DT Tyler Powell

This hasn't been a real competitive rivalry lately.  UNC's margins of victory the past four years: 34, 11, 24, 31.  It put an abrupt end to the long winning streak the Hoos had over the Heels in Scott Stadium.  UNC is reeling a bit at the moment, though.  Nobody's too sure what's a bigger scandal: the fact that an office staffer artificially pumped up the grades of thousands of UNC students over 18 years, or the Carolina defense.  One is a horrible affront to everything people expect out of an elite university, and the other made Debby Crowder a household name.

-- UVA run offense vs. UNC run defense

Top backs:
Kevin Parks: 120 carries, 502 yards, 4.2 avg., 3 TDs
Khalek Shepherd: 46 carries, 212 yards, 4.6 avg., 1 TD

UVA offense:
171.7 yards/game, 4.26 yards/attempt
69th of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

UNC defense:
218.0 yards/game, 4.81 yards/attempt
99th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

Stop me if you've heard this story before: Bad teams able to run on supposedly ACC-level defense.  This is not quite as much so as Duke; for one thing, UNC has played teams with a pulse, and not everyone has run buck-wild, either.  On the other hand, UNC can't be said to have shut anyone down, either, not even Liberty.  Only Clemson really had trouble running the ball, but Clemson doesn't actually have a good run game.

Neither does VT - as has been on display the past couple Thursdays - but they were at least functional against UNC.  East Carolina, of course, went apeshit.  And the Carolina defense has been rather prone to allowing long rushing plays by wide receivers; Cam Phillips of VT had a 30-yarder and GT's DeAndre Smelter went for 75.  At some point UVA will probably try an end-around with Darius Jennings.  If it's run to the wide side of the field and not stupidly at the near sideline, it has a chance of going for big yards.

If Ryan Doull is able to return, it should also provide a boost.  Doull isn't amazing, but he's an improvement over Cody Wallace.  And of course, the other big If is whether or not Steve Fairchild actually has the guts to stick with the running game.  UNC's problem here is that they run a nickel defense without an especially stout front six.  The front four is pretty average, and the two starting linebackers - Jeff Schoettmer and Travis Hughes - aren't very productive.  Hughes, who you'll remember as a guy hotly pursued by UVA out of the 757, is only on pace for 65 tackles, a low number for a starting linebacker.

As with Duke, attacking the middle ought to provide more dividends than trying to tiptoe around the edges; un-enamored as I am of our ability to move a line, you'd rather not give a nickel defense time to pursue to the play.  UNC's safeties aren't as strong as Duke's - there's no Jeremy Cash running around - but this still really is one of those games where coachspeak about committing to the run should actually pay off.

-- UVA pass offense vs. UNC pass defense

Quarterbacks:
Matt Johns: 82/147, 55.8%; 1,012 yards, 8 TDs, 5 INTs; 6.88 avg.
Greyson Lambert: 63/97, 64.9%; 564 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs; 5.81 avg.

Top receivers:
Taquan Mizzell: 24 rec., 118 yards, 0 TDs
Miles Gooch: 23 rec., 349 yards, 1 TD
Canaan Severin: 23 rec., 266 yards, 2 TDs

UVA offense:
235.6 yards/game, 6.54 yards/attempt
90th of 128 (national), 9th of 14 (ACC)

UNC defense:
304.7 yards/game, 8.71 yards/attempt
121st of 128 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

Last week was a mixed-messages party.  Mike London declared that "nobody loses their starting job because they're injured," didn't put Greyson Lambert on the injury list, and didn't start him - and then didn't even play him, despite assurances to the contrary, because a quarterback who completed less than half his passes was in too much of a rhythm.

So I really hope it's just that London thinks he's being clever by continuing to refuse to name an actual starter, but I have my doubts.  Matt Johns didn't play horribly last week, but that impression comes about only because the passes he did complete went for big yardage.  (And because it was still better than almost every David Watford performance.)

This area is where UNC diverges heavily from Duke, however.  Duke had a respectable pass defense.  UNC hasn't been able to stop anyone.  OK, Clemson's Deshaun Watson has turned out to be a pretty good quarterback.  But Quinn Kaehler?  San Diego State is just slightly inside the top-100 in passing efficiency and the Aztec QB Kaehler threw for 341 yards.  Carolina doesn't bring an aggressive pass rush, and probably has only one player who elicits much concern in offensive coordinators: cornerback Brian Walker, who's picked off three passes and returned them all a long way.

Given a choice, I'd prefer to see Lambert play most, if not all, of the game.  Against a pass defense like this one, incomplete passes are a waste of time, and you'd rather not give UNC's offense much of a chance to get on the field.  The worst thing you can do is a three-and-out drive that takes a minute off the clock.  If Michael Brewer can complete two-thirds of his passes and lead VT to 34 points, surely the Hoos can figure this out too.

-- UNC run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Marquise Williams: 91 carries, 448 yards, 4.9 avg, 4 TDs
T.J. Logan: 47 carries, 213 yards, 4.5 avg., 1 TD

UNC offense:
152.3 yards/game, 4.07 yards/attempt
80th of 128 (national), 9th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
100.6 yards/game, 3.03 yards/attempt
11th of 128 (national), 2nd of 14 (ACC)

It looks like UNC won't have running back Elijah Hood for Saturday; Hood leads Carolina's RBs in carries, but Romar Morris has been just as productive, and T.J. Logan's been better.  News has been better for UNC on the offensive line, though; the right side consists of Landon Turner and Jon Heck, both of whom missed time with injuries earlier in the year, and both of whom got back on the field in the past couple weeks.  Not coincidentally, UNC ran for about 190 yards in both the ND and GT games.

The primary ballcarrier, though, is quarterback Marquise Williams, because UNC runs a great deal of read-option.  In the basic-est of read-option plays, a right-handed quarterback like Williams runs to the left while the RB heads right, so strong days from Logan and Morris with a fully healthy right side of the line were no surprise.

Williams is a strong runner; he's a fairly big guy, linebacker-sized but elusive.  Quin Blanding learned a lesson about college quarterbacks when UCLA's Brett Hundley ran him over in front of the goal line; this is the time to apply it.  Blanding's got a tough job in the read-option.  He has to watch the handoff and head where the ball is, while ensuring that there isn't a receiver streaking downfield.  The read-option creates a numerical mismatch in favor of the offense, so quality safety play - i.e., bringing reinforcements - is one way to nullify that.  Traditionally the read-option is defended with a "scrape exchange" which lures the QB into keeping and then running smack into a linebacker.  In this case that will be Daquan Romero, another very important player for this matchup.

The third way to beat the read-option?  Simply blow it up at the line.  One of its goals is to get multiple blockers onto the second level, which is hard to do if Jon Tenuta has dialed up the right blitz.  Anyway, the run game in Fedora's offense is a clear second fiddle.  UVA is strong against the run for a reason, and should have success regardless, but this isn't the main matchup.

-- UNC pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Quarterback:
Marquise Williams: 156/242, 64.5%; 1,776 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs; 7.34 avg.

Top receivers:
Ryan Switzer: 34 rec., 429 yards, 3 TDs
Mack Hollins: 24 rec., 435 yards, 5 TDs
Bug Howard: 23 rec., 197 yards, 2 TDs

UNC offense:
300.0 yards/game, 7.14 yards/attempt
62nd of 128, 5th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
230.7 yards/game, 6.48 yards/attempt
35th of 128 (national), 7th of 14 (ACC)

This didn't go well last week.  Zero sacks, zero turnovers.  Under those circumstances, holding Duke to 20 points is pretty decent, but it's four scoring drives.  UNC has only allowed 11 sacks in 7 games thanks to a solid O-line in protection and quick-hitting passes, and Williams has only thrown six picks as well.  And with a faster-paced offense, four scoring drives could turn into six.

Coverage will simply have to be excellent, and a little more pressure on Williams would help.  He's elusive, has a strong arm, and can extend a play with his feet and then fit the ball into a small spot.  And the Heels spread it around a lot.  Quite a few plays go to the running backs, but four different receivers all have 20+ catches this year.  Ryan Switzer in particular is speedy and dangerous in the open field, and the Heels like to set him up in the slot with blockers and space.

UNC also likes to be tricky; receivers Switzer and Quinshad Davis have each thrown a touchdown (one of which was to Williams) as well as punter Tommy Hibbard.  When you run as many plays as UNC does (they're one of the fastest teams in the country at just under 80 plays a game) the bag of tricks has to be large.

UVA needs to score points, yes, but the game is likely to be won or lost here.  Pretty much nobody's been able to stop the UNC passing attack, except for VT.  UVA can't likely win a shootout, so the Hoos need to drag the point total down to a more workable level.  Cut down on UNC's big plays and limit their passing attack, and it's possible; if UNC is able to put up 40-plus points again, UVA probably won't be able to overcome that.

-- Favorability ratings

UVA run offense: 5.5
UVA pass offense: 6.5
UVA run defense: 6
UVA pass defense: 2.5

Average: 5.125

-- Outlook

This is a very, very big game.  I don't usually go in for speculation about "is this Mike London's most important game???" but this is about that important.  With Miami and FSU both yet to be played (and let's face it, Miami is a good team and the likely favorite for the division title) 4-4 is no place to be if you want to get bowl eligible.  That most likely requires beating both Georgia Tech and VT to get there.

Well, GT is basically Carolina with a funkier offense.  No defense at all, but capable of winning a shootout.  Can't beat UNC?  Then probably would have trouble with GT.  And VT, despite the fact that their 24/7 board boasts no fewer than 22 different "fire the coaches" threads from just the Miami game alone, undoubtedly has something up their sleeve the same way they surprised Ohio State.

So this is the crossroads.  Win this one, and finding one more - just one more, even two - should be doable, and confidence will be renewed.  Lose and....well, we don't even know if 6-6 would save London's job, let alone something worse.

-- Predictions

- Greyson Lambert starts.

- The UVA passing game generates over 300 yards.

- UVA passes more than they run.

- UNC also passes for more than 300 yards.

- Zero sacks again for UVA, but not zero turnovers.

- UNC averages fewer than 4 yards a carry.

Final score: UVA 31, UNC 28

-- Rest of the ACC

Byes: Duke, Florida State, Louisville, NC State

-- Miami 30, Virginia Tech 6 - Thu. - Overheard from the broadcasters:

"Can you imagine [the VT] offense against [the UVA] defense??"
"..."
"........."
"I don't think I want to."

"The Coastal is so wide-open; you can't count out any team in the race."
"Well, except for Virginia Tech."

-- Boston College @ Wake Forest - 3:30 - It's rare that a team is as much of a running powerhouse as BC without employing some Paul Johnsonish throwback kind of offense, but BC pulls it off.

-- Georgia Tech @ Pittsburgh - 3:30 - Five teams in the Coastal are either 2-1 or 2-2, including these two.  This week should help clarify things a little.  For GT's side of things, they started hot but it's not inconceivable (though also not real likely) that they could finish outside the bowl picture, even though they only need one more win.

-- Syracuse @ Clemson - 7:00 - Clemson should add themselves to the ACC's bowl rolls this week.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

tarred heels

Our game with UNC is this Saturday, and conveniently enough, a full investigative report was released today on the academic fraud that's been taking place there.  It's been known for a while that UNC had been plagued by "irregularities" in the African-American Studies department (AFAM, as the school calls it.)  The head of that department, Julius Nyang'oro, already got himself fired for running sham classes, but as it turns out, this really wasn't Nyang'oro's baby, and it wasn't just a couple years' worth of phoniness nor was it limited to the football team - as you might have assumed by the fact that UNC vacated the '08 and '09 football seasons.

No, the truth is that the University of North Carolina essentially ran a diploma mill for almost two decades.

The report is awfully damn comprehensive.  The cliffnotes:

-- A staffer - not a professor or a tutor or a TA or indeed a teacher of any kind - took it upon herself to build a small fiefdom of "paper classes", for which she would assign grades based entirely on the fact that a single paper was turned in with a student's name attached.

-- She developed for herself the power to sign the department head's name to any form necessary, such as grade change forms.

-- The academic support staffs for the various Tar Heel teams knew all about it, steered players to the classes, and explicitly warned their coaches when the grade-point inflator was going to retire and that they'd have to find some other way to keep their players eligible.  Specific teams mentioned are football, both basketball teams, Carolina's vaunted women's soccer team, and the baseball team.

-- Tutors, in several cases, did the actual paper-writing.

-- Once the general student population got wind of this, and learned they could sign up for these classes too, some of them took so many of these phony classes that they accidentally earned an AFAM minor.

-- This went on for 18 years, long enough to cover the basketball reigns of Dean Smith, Matt Doherty, and Roy Williams, not to mention John Swofford's tenure as UNC AD.

The report is full of illustrative details and example - here's one particularly interesting one:
In Spring 2006, Professor Bereket Selassie taught a lecture class on North-East Africa, AFRI 124, with 25 enrolled students.  At the end of the semester, Professor Selassie recorded a grade of AB (an incomplete grade that technically means "absent from the exam") for a football player who never attended the lectures or the exam.  When we asked Professor Selassie about this student, he was flabbergasted to see that the AB for that football player had been changed to an A- through a grade change form.
We then interviewed both Crowder and the football player and learned that he was one of Crowder's add-on students.  She had placed the football player on Selassie's class roll, given him a paper topic, and graded the paper.**  Crowder changed the grade from an AB to an A- using a grade change form and signed Nyang'oro's name as instructor.
**The player told us that he had interacted only with Crowder and did not even know who Professor Selassie was.  From his perspective, the football player saw this process as typical and consistent with the 19 other AFAM paper classes he took during his Chapel Hill career.
Crowder - Debby Crowder - is the abovementioned fiefdom-building staffer who decided academic standards were for her to poop on.

So let's recap: A player is enrolled in a class by an office staffer, who tells the player nothing about the class itself or who teaches it or where it meets, but instead assigns him a paper.  He turns one in (and may or may not have written it himself.)  She grades it, using the ingenious process she devised herself (described elsewhere in the report as checking to see whether it had enough pages), then gives the player full credit for the class using a forged signature.  The professor doesn't even know what happened until eight years later.

This is not just a one-time thing, it's standard operating procedure for 18 years and essentially is how this player plus many of UNC's other athletes received a degree.  Nobody in the administration checks up on this and the athletic support staff uses this as more or less their only method of keeping anyone eligible.  Diploma mill, wrought of fraud on a truly staggering scale.  Carolina fans these days resemble defense lawyers with an obviously guilty client; the prosecution brings every gun to bear and you just try and poke holes anywhere you can, such as by insisting that anything said by Mary Willingham and Rashad McCants should be ignored.

**********************************************

If you're like me, you have two questions: one, is there any punishment coming down the pipeline?  And two, we all know the world of keeping athletes eligible is a shady one - is this happening at UVA?

For the first question, there are really only two governing bodies that matter: the NCAA and the SACS.  SACS is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools - the accreditation body for thousands of colleges in the 11 states under its jurisdiction.  SACS is who put UVA on notice for the whole Dragas Affair.  If SACS says you're not a real school, you're not a real school, and it's natural to wonder if UNC's whole accreditation could be in jeopardy.  And naturally, SACS has already looked at this and.... done nothing.

Then you have the NCAA, which has already dropped some punishment on UNC's head - a bowl ban a couple years ago plus UNC's voluntary vacation of wins and a scholarship limit which expires after this year comprises the extent of it.  Could they open this up again?  They tend to signal an unwillingness to be a governing body over the academic rigor of a school's programs, which makes sense on one level and on another level is sort of like saying they won't punish anyone for feeding their players steroids because they're not a chemistry lab.  You ask me, I think that if vacating wins is actually considered a real penalty, then everything the whole athletic program ever did between 1993 and 2011 should go down the memory hole.  That sort of illustrates the silliness of that as a penalty, though; among other things, the women's soccer record books would be totally obliterated, considering that UNC won 11 titles in that time frame.  No, I don't think the fraudsters should get to claim them, but then, I also think that sanctions should be a deterrent, which crossing out entries in a book and forcing the removal of trophies to a dusty closet does not do.

The NCAA also tends to wash their hands of things if the student body in general is involved.  They're happy to allow a loophole in their rules, for example, that ostensibly forbid schools build palaces to house their athletes.  Kansas, following the lead of others, is building "dorms" for basketball players that cost $17.5 million and are permissible under the NCAA's rules because, while you can't build stuff for athletes, you can reserve space in student housing for them.  And this is "student housing" because 51% of the space is non-athlete.  By the same token, it's easy to envision the NCAA just washing their hands of this and calling it a school issue.  So the very-possible worst-case is that a few people get fired, and the school's leadership can wring their hands and talk about being embarrassed, and there's really nothing to prevent anyone else from doing this.

If I had to venture a guess, I'd say the NCAA will do something, just not anything that anyone considers sufficiently far-reaching.  They may not be able or willing to regulate the content of a class, but they won't be able to ignore the athletes' academic support pushing classes that were obviously phony and using them to keep athletes eligible.

But is this the sort of thing that "happens everywhere"?  Or specifically, at our beloved UVA?  I could speak anecdotally: I had a couple classes - real ones in a real major - with Groh-era receiver Michael McGrew, who not only wrote but presented his own papers - next to impossible if they'd been written by a tutor.  Another player who did his own work, easily observable because it was a studio class in which faking it would've been next to impossible?  Roger Mason.  (Though, his attendance was something less than perfect, and noticeable because he wasn't the only basketball player in the class, but he missed a good deal more of it.  I have no idea what grade he got, and he was off to the NBA draft that summer.)

As well, in this case our somewhat adversarial admissions department is an easy shield from any criticism.  The academic side of the school is notoriously prickly about not giving any special treatment to athletes, as Jameel Sewell, Jeffrey Fitzgerald, and Chris Brathwaite can attest to.  A school that won't scam its way to eligibility for its own starting quarterback is pretty emphatically not in danger of being accused of shenanigans.

That's what oversight looks like, irksome as it may be to those who wish they'd ease up just a little.  No oversight at all is what put Carolina into this mess.  Faced now with the full extent of the fakery, today might possibly be the worst day since the founding of the school to have a UNC degree.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

the recruit: David Curry

Name: David Curry
Position: S
Hometown: Buford, GA
School: Buford
Height: 6'1"
Weight: 190

24/7: 83, three stars; #101 S, GA #132
ESPN: 73, three stars; #116 S, GA #147, SE #642
Rivals: 5.4, two stars
Scout: three stars; #142 S

Other offers: Iowa State, Arkansas State, Georgia State, Miami (OH)

Safeties come in a couple different varieties.  Some are "athletes" who seem to pan out best as a safety - think Anthony Harris.  Most of UVA's safeties are this kind.  Some are born safeties based on their physical attributes - think Quin Blanding, but it doesn't have to be someone whose physical skills are perfectly suited for the position.  Sometimes it's because they can't really play anything else.

That's David Curry - too small for linebacker and too slow for cornerback, but a successful high school safety all the same.  Curry makes his name on instinct, feel for the game, and tackling skills.  This is what earns him low ratings, not necessarily something that makes him a candidate for the back end of the bench for five years.  I'm going to have to dip into the Michigan side of me here, but really the comparison that works best is Jordan Kovacs - a player who Division II schools lost interest in recruiting, tried out as a walk-on for Michigan, didn't even make it, tried out again, was given a jersey, and long story short made it to the NFL.  (Undrafted, natch.)  Kovacs was - is - essentially a savant on defense, who didn't have to run a fast 40 to get to the right spot quickly, and who didn't allow broken tackles.

That's what UVA is hoping for out of Curry.  You can't play defensive end just by knowing how, but you can't play safety without knowing how.  And the fewer physical gifts you have, the more you better know.  Stars from the rating services are four-fifths physical - if you can bench press an ox but lose a battle of wits to it, you might just get five stars anyway, and you'll have at least seven SEC offers.

Since they don't really rate instincts other than to say whether or not a player has them, projecting Curry's future is harder than usual.  If he's the kind of guy who picks up on everything immediately, he could leapfrog quite a few residents of the depth chart and play as a freshman.  We're losing an all-ACC strong safety to graduation, after all.  Curry is a definite strong safety type - in fact, his best fit on a defense is probably as what some defenses call a rover, or basically the third safety who's sort of a linebacker.

Kelvin Rainey and Malcolm Cook have a long, long head start, though, and the odds should be on them to hold onto it for a while.  Forget projecting Curry's instincts - we really don't even know a hell of a lot about these two, either, but it's safe to assume they know a little something about Jon Tenuta's system.  Curry's mental game is going to have to be well above average; if it's not, he'll just end up muddling along and possibly get recruited over.  (Though, it's safe to bet that if he had average field smarts to go along with average athleticism, he'd be playing D-III ball.)  He may also simply wait his turn like Cook has been doing so far, and arrive as a starter in his third or fourth season in the program.  But in the best-case scenario, he could either surpass a few players or simply prove indispensible and become the fifth starting DB, and watch Tenuta tweak the defense to make that player a safety rather than a corner.  In any case, Curry's career is even less projectable than the average recruit from here, for the same reason nobody wanted Jordan Kovacs until they actually put him through his paces on a practice field.

Monday, October 20, 2014

the devil take it

I'd been preaching the past few weeks that it wasn't real likely that everything was gonna go right in the second half of the season, but I gotta admit I wasn't too sure what that would look like.  No, I wasn't very excited to find out, thank you.  In a nutshell, the answer is:

-- A really bad offensive game plan, badly executed
-- An opposing offensive game plan perfectly suited to nullify the strength of our defense

The latter is actually a little bit encouraging.  The pass rush was taken entirely out of the equation, Anthony Boone wasn't touched, and the defense still only allowed 20 points.  (Though aided somewhat by Boone's inaccuracy.)  There are definitely worse offenses left on the schedule, one of which was on display Thursday night.

Our own offense was a massive disappointment, though.  Yes, dropped passes hurt, and yes, Matt Johns missed some very open receivers deep.  That's not the worst part, though.  The worst part is that Duke's defense has been very, very amenable to jamming the ball down their throat, as evidenced by the fact that some of the shittiest teams in all of D-I football have done just that, and UVA elected to pass more than 60% of the time.

Let's put this in perspective: Duke has a very poor run defense and a very good pass defense.  You have a senior running back and a sophomore quarterback.**  You are presented with a wall of paper and a wall of brick, and you can either use a flamethrower on the paper or a rubber mallet on the brick.  You chose the mallet.

So yes, Matt Johns was mostly off-target with sporadic displays of brilliance, but nobody blames the foot soldiers for the failure of Pickett's Charge.  The coaches had an obvious chance to set their players up for success, and instead got outcoached on two weeks of preparation by a staff with one week of preparation.  It's not hard to see why there's still plenty of angst about the future of the program.

It's a sobering reminder of where our ambitions should be.  A division title would be cool, and jeez, even reachable, but we're probably gonna have to dial that back a bit.  I don't like it one bit, but an offense that spins its wheels as much as this one hasn't earned much confidence in the future.  13 points against that defense is just - ugh, I'm forced to deploy the word of choice for drunken Saturday-night quarterbacks everywhere - unacceptable.

**And your senior running back routinely turns in awesome performances in the state of North Carolina, because he's pissed off that none of the teams there recruited him.  GIVE HIM THE BALL!

Bullets:

-- Short-side east-west plays (the bane of my existence) and poor run-pass balance aren't the only coaching bugaboos to make a triumphant return.  Crappy timeout usage was also costly.  Not as costly as other stuff, but still.

-- I really do not like the orange helmets with gray facemasks.  Really ugly when not part of a throwback.  It's amazing how the wrong helmet turns one of the classiest looks we've ever had into one of the worst.

-- I don't want to do the research on this myself, because it'd take forever, but I wonder when the last time was that a college quarterback completed less than half his passes for over 300 yards.  Johns was nine yards shy of the sophomore record (Matt Schaub, 334) and would've threatened (if not completely blown past) the single-game record of 393 (Schaub, again) with a little more accuracy on some of those deep balls.  Or fewer dropped passes.

-- Another thing I hate: Receiving the opening kickoff.  You basically have to score right there, on that drive, or else you've blown the whole advantage of it.  Anything else - anything at all - and the other team, especially in their own stadium, gets to start the game on a momentum high.  Another reason, by the way, that all that passing was stupid.  Nothing would've been as perfect as taking the opening kick and spending the next seven minutes grinding out as many rushing yards as your heart desired.  Send the message that we're gonna do this all day so you might as well lose hope now.

 Prediction review:

-- Kevin Parks runs for over 100 yards. Well, maybe if he'd been given any carries.

-- Greyson Lambert (or our starting quarterback) attempts fewer than 20 passes.  I really need to stop making predictions based on what I would do.

-- UVA loses the turnover battle.  This did happen, although the general point was to build a narrative where UVA was good enough to overcome doing so.

-- Duke's run game is more than a yard worse than their average.  No, and Duke was surprisingly and annoyingly effective on the ground.

-- Quin Blanding has 10 or more tackles.  Blanding had nine; it was Anthony Harris who had the big day in the secondary with 14

-- UVA wins time of possession by six or more minutes.  The Hoos did win this battle, but not by that much.

New prediction stats:

14-for-35 on specifics (40%)
4-2 straight up
2-2-1 ATS

*************************************************

Two things happened over the weekend worth discussing.  Well, Thursday and then Monday.

The Monday thing is Tony Bennett building up his 2016 class with the addition of Indiana guard Kyle Guy.  As with Ty Jerome, the first member of the class, I'm gonna wait til these guys finish their junior years before even bothering with trying a profile.  But know this: The Indiana schools normally have the state of Indiana on lockdown, and if not them, the state's high-profile recruits still choose a school close by.  In 2012, for example, the state produced eight four-star prospects (by Rivals' reckoning.)  Three went to IU, two to Purdue, and one each to Butler, Michigan, and MSU.

In fact, going back to the 2009 class, there've been about 30 four-star or above prospects (Rivals, again) to come out of the state of Indiana - exactly one of them went to a school somewhere other than the state of Indiana or one of its direct neighbors.  Guy is the second.

The 2016 class is shaping up to be perhaps Tony's most heralded class of his UVA tenure; it now needs some lengthy wing types, as the only three on the 2016-2017 depth chart is Marial Shayok.  Highly fluid is the world of basketball recruiting, which is why I don't cover it til after the commitments happen; that said, if you don't know the name Mamadi Diakite yet, learn it.

The Thursday thing was the VT game against Pitt, which I watched from start to finish, the first time I'd done so all year.  I came away with a few opinions, naturally:

-- VT gets horrible safety play.  Before the game I'd noticed, during my stat-digging, that they've been prone to giving up long pass plays, a surefire indicator that safeties aren't in the right place at the right time.  Kyshoen Jarrett's awful angle on a long Tyler Boyd touchdown, as pointed out by the announcers, drove that point home.  Their corners are more or less as advertised (which is to say, very good), but the safeties - woof.

-- Michael Brewer is a good quarterback about 25% of the time.

-- VT's offensive line is fun to watch, if you like defensive line play.  Pitt's Nicholas Grigsby is not an elite defender by anyone's measurement, but on one play he blew untouched past VT's right tackle, McLaughlin.  Eli Harold and Max Valles should have an enjoyable day on Thanksgiving weekend.

-- You would expect that at least VT's run defense would be up to snuff, but James Conner and Chad Voytik ran wild all evening.

-- Did the Hokies do anything right?  Not a lot, when you're looking at no first downs in the first quarter-and-a-half.  But besides their excellent cornerbacks, Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips make for a very impressive pair of freshman receivers.  DT Corey Marshall did a nice job on one play of dropping back into coverage and it resulted in a pickoff, a dangerous thing for our short-tossing pass offense.  (Though, most short passes go toward the sideline rather than dunkoffs over the middle.)

I'm really rooting for Miami in Lane Stadium next week - I mean, besides the whole thing about let's not root for Tech to win anything, VT is in the middle of their special scheduling handjob the ACC gives them literally every year.  (Except last year, which caused them no end of distress about having to do something most teams routinely do.)  Seeing them go 0-for-2 on Thursdays, well, it'd be no less than they deserve for the special treatment they get.  Their next three opponents - Miami, BC, Duke - all have very strong running games, and if they don't get their run defense act together at least once, UVA will have the chance to deliver the death blow to their bowl eligibility hopes.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

game preview: Duke


Date/Time: Saturday, October 18; 12:30

TV: ESPN3

Record against the Blue Devils: 33-32

Last meeting: Duke 35, UVA 22; 10/19/13, Charlottesville

Last weekend: UVA bye; Duke 31, GT 25

Line: Duke by 2.5

Injury report:

Virginia:

OUT: OG Ryan Doull, C Jackson Matteo, CB Demetrious Nicholson, OG Jay Whitmire
DOUBTFUL: None
QUESTIONABLE: None
PROBABLE: None

Duke:

OUT: TE Dan Bellinson, CB Johnathan Lloyd, OL Trip McNeill, DT Jamal Wallace, LB Kelby Brown, TE Braxton Deaver, DE Taariq Shabazz
DOUBTFUL: None
QUESTIONABLE: None
PROBABLE: DE Dezmond Johnson, RB Shaq Powell

Duke has a good football team these days.  Eight years ago, that was the first definition in the dictionary under "unthinkable."  Right underneath was the idea that any ACC team might lose five out of six to them.  And let's be honest: I'm still not used to it.  The good news is, if we lose again, we can walk out muttering "just wait til basketball season" and mean it.

-- UVA run offense vs. Duke run defense

Top backs:
Kevin Parks: 104 carries, 427 yards, 4.1 ypc, 3 TDs
Taquan Mizzell: 42 carries, 173 yards, 4.1 ypc, 2 TDs

UVA offense:
177.0 yards/game, 4.23 yards/attempt
73rd of 128 (national), 9th of 14 (ACC)

Duke defense:
202.33 yards/game, 4.56 yards/attempt
85th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

Ryan Doull's unexpected appearance on the injury report is a medium-serious blow to the running game and a pretty solid hit to the already razor-thin depth on the OL.  Doull will probably be replaced by Cody Wallace, who's been in and out of the lineup most of his career - and mostly out this year.  Wallace has always been marginal at best; the fact that Doull jumped all the way from kick protection to starting lineup, past Wallace in his fifth year, is not a ringing endorsement of Wallace's skills.

The good news is Duke's defense, which is junk.  Elon - a 1-5 I-AA team - sent their backs through the Duke defense for 5.4 yards a carry, sacks excluded.  Tulane's top two backs combined for 6.5.  Duke's defense wasn't great last year, either; losing top linebacker Kelby Brown really hurt.  Jeremy Cash at safety is a very good run-stopper and basically a linebacker, but he can't do it all himself.  Duke's defensive front line is somewhat undersized and not very good.

So it's a resistible-force vs. movable-object kind of matchup.  It doesn't take a running game like Miami's to tear up the Duke defense (although they did as well.)  I've said that UVA could ride Kevin Parks to a pretty successful run game if the O-line could get just a little bit of push and let Parks build up momentum as he hit the line.  That could be illustrated this week, even with a depleted line, and the fact that UVA's playcalling has skewed to the run side of things should help even more.  Duke's incredible-shreddable defense should probably let Parks roll to a second straight 100-yard game.

-- UVA pass offense vs. Duke pass defense

Quarterbacks:
Matt Johns: 60/102, 58.8%; 687 yards, 7 TDs, 5 INTs; 6.74 ypa
Greyson Lambert: 63/97, 64.9%; 564 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs; 5.81 ypa

Top receivers:
Canaan Severin: 21 rec., 255 yards, 2 TDs
Taquan Mizzell: 21 rec., 99 yards, 0 TDs
Miles Gooch: 17 rec., 220 yards, 1 TD

UVA offense:
220.7 yards/game, 6.49 yards/attempt
95th of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

Duke defense:
184.5 yards/game, 5.62 yards/attempt
13th of 128 (national), 2nd of 14 (ACC)

That defense that's been so friendly to run games, though, has tightened up against the pass.  Duke runs a nickel package almost exclusively and they have the safety depth to do it.  Cash is just a good defender regardless of what the offense is doing, and DeVon Edwards is an excellent complement.  There isn't much of a pass rush, but DE Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo provides a decent challenge there.

Greyson Lambert isn't on the injury report.  He'll almost certainly get the start, but nobody really knows what London is thinking when it comes to the hook.  You know my thoughts: let the starter play.  Johns has done a solid job, but Lambert, I think, has done a little bit of a better job taking care of the ball (you'll remember, his first two picks weren't his fault.)

That'll be the main thing here.  Duke's inability to stop the run could open up certain passing opportunities as well, little screens and such, the sort of thing that Steve Fairchild tries in order to put the ball in Taquan Mizzell's hands in space.  Lambert should usually have time, as well.  Duke's numbers have come largely against crap offenses - Kansas and Tulane in particular really suck at passing the ball - but they've at least stopped them, unlike in the run game.  In Tulane's case, the Blue Devil defense took two interceptions all the way back.  If the running game can get moving like I think, Lambert's main job will be zero INTs.  Not easy, against a quality group of safeties, but I don't think much will be asked of him.

-- Duke run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Josh Snead: 49 carries, 256 yards, 5.2 ypc, 2 TDs
Shaun Wilson: 43 carries, 466 yards, 10.8 ypc, 4 TDs

Duke offense:
228.5 yards/game, 5.83 yards/attempt
12th of 128 (national), 2nd of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
91.5 yards/game, 2.72 yards/attempt
4th of 128 (national), 2nd of 14 (ACC)

Duke's run game has been enormously successful, frankly, and it doesn't matter who carries the ball.  They spread it out a ton.  Freshman Shaun Wilson piled up 245 yards on just 12 carries against the admittedly pitiful Kansas Jayhawks.  Josh Snead and Shaq Powell have been very solid backs throughout their careers.  And Duke likes to run their quarterbacks plenty as well; Anthony Boone is mobile enough, but Duke has packages as well for Thomas Sirk, an excellent runner with good size.

Of course, the one time Duke went against a decent defense, they got snuffed pretty good.  That was Miami - the game was played in a drenching downpour, but Miami did alright on the ground.  Duke does have a pretty solid offensive line, but I think you might have been introduced before to the UVA front six-or-seven.  Pitt's James Conner certainly was.

The main thing for UVA will be to sniff out the various looks Duke will throw at them, especially when Sirk enters the game.  Duke's O-line is good and will win their share of battles, making the linebackers and Quin Blanding pretty important.  And that should make Duke fans nervous.

-- Duke pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Quarterback:
Anthony Boone: 121/210, 57.6%; 1,186 yards, 8 TDs, 3 INTs; 5.65 ypa

Top receivers:
Jamison Crowder: 32 rec., 372 yards, 2 TDs
Max McCaffrey: 23 rec., 236 yards, 3 TDs
Issac Blakeney: 19 rec., 212 yards, 3 TDs

Duke offense:
205.5 yards/game, 5.50 yards/attempt
122nd of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
239.3 yards/game, 6.81 yards/attempt
54th of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

Statistically, Anthony Boone appears to have taken a step backwards from last year, a worrying sign given Duke's competition so far (remember, GT's defense = not that good.)  Six and a half percentage points worse in the completion department, a yard and a half worse per attempt.  This is the one point where we'll make a big allowance for the rainstorm in Miami, though - even though it was only during the second half.  Take away Boone's Miami stats and he's still worse, but not appreciably.

Still, perhaps this will be a telling stat: the WRs' yards per catch.  UVA fans at times bemoan a dink-and-dunk approach, but every one of UVA's top four wide receivers (RBs not included) has a higher per-catch average than every one of Duke's top four.  Duke and dunk.

This is reflected in Duke's pass protection stats; they've only allowed four sacks all season, which is a testament to the O-line, the mobility of the quarterbacks, and the quickness with which they get rid of the ball.  Duke will probably try and drop the ball off even quicker given UVA's blitzy pass rush.  There could be some plays where that burns us - slant routes and the like - so safety play will be huge.  The other important thing is not getting sucked in on Sirk packages, although he hasn't completed a pass since the Kansas game (third of the season) and isn't guaranteed to even try a pass here.

-- Favorability ratings:

UVA run offense: 6
UVA pass offense: 4
UVA run defense: 6.5
UVA pass defense: 6

Average: 5.6

-- Outlook

It's certainly possible I'm just getting sucked in to the excitement of novel ideas like a winning record, but - I'm not impressed with Duke's schedule, I'm not impressed with their results, with scores that belie a lack of statistical dominance, and I'm not impressed with their front six.  And I'm like a tweenage girl at a One Direction concert for the front line of our defense.

So I'm optimistic.  Any time a team faces us with a bad defense and a good offense, rather than the other way round, we have at least a chance and probably more.  UVA's defense isn't good enough to carry the offense through every single game, but this one - I'd say yes.

-- Predictions

-- Kevin Parks runs for over 100 yards.

-- Greyson Lambert (or our starting quarterback) attempts fewer than 20 passes.

-- UVA loses the turnover battle.

-- Duke's run game is more than a yard worse than their average.

-- Quin Blanding has 10 or more tackles.

-- UVA wins time of possession by six or more minutes.

Final score: UVA 28, Duke 17

-- Rest of the ACC

Bye: Miami

Virginia Tech @ Pittsburgh - Thu., 7:30 - I've been watching this game all evening, and Tech's offense is pitiful and the Hokies are basically getting dominated, but I've never seen a team blow stuff up in its own face like Pitt is doing.

Syracuse @ Wake Forest - 12:00 - A pair of 0-2 teams battle.  Critical game for Cuse if they're going to salvage bowl eligibility.

Clemson @ Boston College - 3:30 - Clemson is favored, but only by 4.5; a huge game if they want to try and stay in shouting distance of FSU.

NC State @ Louisville - 3:30 - The Pack started 4-0 and are now 4-3, staring at 4-4, proving that you can "schedule for success" and still be a total embarrassment.

Georgia Tech @ North Carolina - 7:00 - I may actually Tivo this one in hopes that the final score is like 84-77.

Florida State vs. Notre Dame - 8:00 - Whoever wins has a very, very inside track for inclusion in the four-team playoff.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

half-season preview

Four and two is nice, sure.  Four and two is quite a bit above and beyond anyone's most optimistic predictions, really.  Jon Tenuta's sack-line defense is more fun to watch than we had a right to expect, even knowing what we had in our front seven (or six.)  Competent quarterback play has returned to Scott Stadium after a hiatus of some time.

But I think folks also understand: Mike London's seat isn't any cooler than it was.  Part of this is because being a UVA fan means spending your whole life waiting for the other shoe to drop, but part of it is also the understanding that this team could easily be 2-4, and still working on a winless streak in the ACC, if you change a play or two here and there.  We said the same thing in reverse about losing teams of the past, so it's at least nice to watch the bounces go the right way.  Still, the only thing that's really been accomplished is to set the team up for the necessary success to keep London behind the wheel of his complementary BMW.

I'm on record as saying that an eight-win season is what it would - or should - take.  (Or seven, as long as one comes in Blacksburg.)  Halfway there - that's great, but I don't know if we want to see the state of the fanbase or the program if the finish is 1-5.  So: it's time to see about the remaining obstacles.  Three-quarters of the ACC season remains, and tougher yet, four of the next six are on the road.  Here's a broad overview of what UVA will be up against.

DUKE

Offense: Efficient
Defense: Unimpressive

Duke is just about how I had them pegged at the start of the season, except with less of a passing game.  The quirk in their stats is that they're excellent in the run game (on offense) and so-so passing the ball, and the very opposite on defense.  A lot of this has to be viewed through the prism of their schedule, of course.  For example, Anthony Boone appears to have taken a big step back in his accuracy, but his stats are skewed by 51 passes in a monsoon against Miami.

Duke's OOC schedule was an utter embarrassment; the combined record of their four opponents is 6-18.  Once they stopped playing joke teams and joined the real world, they promptly lost.  They bounced back with a nice win over GT in Atlanta - that said, I'm still not convinced GT is a good team.

Against the backdrop of that schedule, Duke still has one of the worst run defenses (per play) in the league, and they don't even need GT's stat-skewing run game to accomplish that.  They came nowhere near shutting down the nonsense they played in the OOC.  Bottom line, this is a very beatable opponent whose strengths play right into ours.

NORTH CAROLINA

Offense: Solid, but very reliant on Marquise Williams
Defense: Can heel, roll over, play dead, and even beg

Legend has it that soldiers from North Carolina held their ground in battle so well that it was as if they had tar on their heels.  If the current UNC defense had been the one in the legends, North Carolina might today be known as the White Flag State.  Carolina can score pretty well, and may even have dropped the idea of platooning Marquise Williams with Mitch Trubisky, which would be the smart thing to do.  Williams is a very effective passer and runner in Larry Fedora's up-tempo offense.

Problem is, the defense is incredibly polite, compliant, and eager to accommodate opposing offenses.  "Oh, sorry, chap," they'll say.  "Didn't mean to stand in your way.  Off to the end zone, are you?  Jolly good."  These guys will not only usher you to your seat, they'll kindly hold your hat and coat as you enjoy the show, and refuse a tip at the end of the night.  Week after week, the Heels have been getting mercilessly blown apart.  ECU racked up 70 points and 789 yards, both records for a UNC opponent.  Notre Dame beat them 50-43, thus putting the highest-scoring game in the history of Notre Dame Stadium into the books.  The run defense isn't much to speak of, but Helen Keller could throw for 200 yards on the pass defense and probably never be sacked.

UVA gets to play this shitshow at home.  I'm not real convinced of our offensive capabilities yet, but if you can't score on UNC you can't score on anyone.

GEORGIA TECH

Offense: The usual
Defense: The reason I'm not convinced

GT has powered up the run game with the usual brutal efficiency, and their passing game has been working too, which is what drove their rise to the top 25 - prior, of course, to their loss to Duke.  There's still a ways to go, though; Justin Thomas against Duke made what might be the single stupidest throw I've ever seen out of a quarterback, which helped Duke out immensely.

That said, GT's OOC was just as jokey as Duke's, and GT's defensive stats stink to high heaven.  They almost squandered a huge lead to Georgia Southern, they've been badly susceptible to the big play, and frankly I can't wait for their game against UNC, coming up this Saturday.  UVA has to travel to Atlanta for this one, which is usually a tough trip, and all the usual caveats apply about stopping the triple option.  But I do not think GT is anything resembling a top-25 team, and should be viewed as just as badly flawed a team as any in the Coastal.

FLORIDA STATE

Offense: Extremely tough to stop
Defense: Up and down, but still really athletic

Still undefeated, FSU hasn't lost since November 24, 2012.  But pundits haven't found them as convincing as last year, and indeed, they haven't shown the same unstoppable mojo as the 2013 team that scored a minimum of 41 points in any given conference game.  Even in not losing, they've relinquished the top spots in the polls.

Still... I mean, whatever.  A loss may or may not be coming this season, but "not quite as national-championship caliber as last year" is praising with faint damnation.  UVA has to make another trip to Tallahassee, the toughest of the four remaining road games, even if Jameis Winston ends up suspended between now and then.

MIAMI

Offense: Respectable
Defense: About average

It's hard to peg this Miami squad, because they're one of those teams that loses to good teams and beats bad ones.  They weren't competitive against Louisville and couldn't catch up to Nebraska, and barely scored on Georgia Tech.  But they did beat Duke and an assortment of crappy OOC teams.  They do have one hell of a run game - Duke Johnson remains the real deal - and they really like freshman QB Brad Kaaya, not without reason.

Probably most educational will be their game in a couple weeks against VT; they have two other games between now and their trip to Charlottesville, but UNC and FSU don't tell you much.  The one really disappointing thing: this isn't one of UVA's road games this year.  Their devilish plan is apparently to lull opponents to sleep, because their sterile pro stadium has all the intimidating atmosphere of an Applebee's.  I've played on louder intramural fields.

VIRGINIA TECH

Offense: OK when not turning it over
Defense: Inconsistent

The Hokies stand more or less in the same place UVA does: 4-2 and not real sure about the next six games.  Tech pulled out every trick in their bag and knocked off Ohio State in Columbus, lost to ECU and GT, then unconvincingly beat two bad teams in Western Michigan and UNC.  Carolina actually slowed down the VT offense quite a bit.

Their defense has been mostly pretty good, which is a drop in standards from what you'd expect.  UNC isn't an easy team to shut down, but VT did it, and the same goes for OSU.  ECU carved them up, though, and GT mounted two fourth-quarter drives (aided by a Michael Brewer interception) to pull out the win.  The Hokies just don't look substantively better than most of the rest of the Coastal.  With the game in Blacksburg, it'll of course be tough, but this year is as good a shot as any to stop losing to these guys.

*********************************************

So what do I think?  I think we go bowling, that's what.  I didn't think so before the season, but I do now, for two reasons.  One is defense.  The other is that the schedule is mostly full of very beatable teams.  UVA could be bowl-eligible ten days from now, but even if not, opportunities abound.  The next three games are against teams that can't really defend.  Finding out what bowl game you're going to is one of the most fun parts of a college football season; it's even better when you had no expectation of doing so.  Being wrong was never so exciting.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

the recruit: Kareem Gibson

Name: Kareem Gibson
Position: CB
Hometown: Johnstown, PA
School: Greater Johnstown
Height: 5'10"
Weight: 160

24/7: 84, three stars; #91 CB, PA #24
ESPN: 73, three stars; #92 CB, PA #36, East #189
Rivals: 5.3, two stars
Scout: three stars; #122 CB

Other offers: West Virginia, Pitt, Temple, Toledo, Akron

At first blush, Kareem Gibson looks like one of the most averagely average prospects UVA has had in a while.  I don't mean that in an entirely negative way - the idea here is that Gibson is a cornerback of average size and average athleticism (for a D-I prospect, not for a high school player), with a basic set of regional offers, and three-star ratings.  (Except Rivals, which plunks him rather inexplicably low; 5.3 isn't even the highest two-star rating they have.)

The interesting thing to me is that Gibson is the sort of two-way athlete that Mike London has historically been unable to resist.  Loading up on cornerbacks has been a theme of my bellyaching for a while now, and yet this very large class only has the one dedicated cornerback - Gibson.  (There's also Myles Robinson and Juan Thornhill, but they seem likely headed to other positions of reasonable need.)  The number of cornerbacks that London offered and then actually pursued in earnest is relatively small.

Gibson's history is interesting.  Committing to UVA over more local offers like Pitt and WVU (and a grayshirt one from Penn State), none of which are more than two hours from Johnstown, seems like a bit of a geographical surprise.  But Gibson is originally a Maryland native who moved to Johnstown for family reasons, so it's actually a move closer to a comfort zone, in a sense.  He also played his whole junior year on a high ankle sprain and roughed-up hamstring, causing a lot of people to go "hm, not impressed" and then "oh."

Further digging into his history reveals some pretty solid camp performances... at Rivals camps, which makes his low rating there all the more puzzling.  At their camp in Richmond he was rated more highly than four-star OL Matthew Burrell, and a few days later in Pittsburgh he outperformed four-star Michigan State DB commit Montae Nicholson.  Both of these were in April 2013, before the injuries.

Physically, Gibson's pretty skinny, which doesn't help his ratings.  Scouting reports on him are a bit lukewarm on his strength - "acceptable" is the word ESPN uses - but that's probably a plus given Gibson's total lack of bulk.  Actually put some muscle on him and the results should be interesting.  Especially as Gibson is generally considered a pretty fearless hitter.  A paywalled guru post on 24/7 offered unsolicited praise along those lines.

Gibson isn't guaranteed to redshirt, because he's the kind of prospect that London sometimes drives fans crazy by using on special teams as a freshman.  He'd make a pretty fair member of a coverage team.  If he does redshirt, he'll emerge in 2016 with four cornerbacks ahead of him in years, three of whom are entirely unknown quantities at this point.  That actually means a lot of opportunity; the coaches have put five different CB's out there at various times because nickel defense, six if you count garbage time, and being the fourth-most senior cornerback should mean playing time by his second year.  All he'd have to do is leapfrog one of them and he'll basically be a starter, assuming the nickel defense continues to function as a base package.

Monday, October 13, 2014

weekend review

Nothing happened and yet it was a great weekend.  Duke made some history by winning in Atlanta, which they hadn't done since 1994, so that's one streak gone; in doing so, they helped UVA make a little history too.  GT was the last other unbeaten team that was tied with the Hoos, which, as probably didn't escape your notice, gives UVA top billing in the Coastal Conference, and nobody to share it with.

Little history quiz: Last time that was the case, by my best guess (which I think is pretty good) the standings looked like this:

UVA 3-1
GT 3-2
Miami 2-2
UNC 2-2
VT 2-2
Duke 1-2

Guess the date?  Take your time...

.....

.....

If you picked 2008, grab a cookie.  October 25, 2008, to be exact, a month which cemented this month's temporary reputation as Groh-tober, and following an upset win over then-ranked GT.  The calendar would flip to November the next week, and UVA wouldn't win a game til the next Groh-tober (the last-gasp 2009 version) nor return to this particular perch until, erm, just now.

This year actually marks the third time for this - the Hoos briefly held the top spot in 2007 as well, after beating Maryland to go 4-0 and then watching VT lose to BC to drop to 3-1 the following Thursday.  That lasted two days; UVA lost to NC State that Saturday.

The path to the ACC championship is clear and obvious.  Start this week by beating Duke, which is coming off an emotional high and ripe for a letdown.  Then knock off Carolina, whose defense deserves to be an MST3K special feature.  Miami should be no problem; the school claimed 44,000 in attendance this week against Cincinnati, probably by counting each fan 20 times.  I figure the Canes will be thoroughly intimidated once they see a crowd of more than 5,000 or so.  ESPN says this is as good a year as any for VT to finally go down.  Then a massive upset in the ACC CG against a Jameis Winston-less FSU - the guy has so many investigations going on from sexual assualt to autographs that I give it an honest 50/50 chance he's still playing for the Noles by the end of November.  Might be less, but FSU only levels any discipline when they're dragged to it kicking and screaming.

Or we can just take it one at a time and see what happens against Duke before scheduling any parades.  Boring.

******************************************

Senior Seasons continues for now, with every one of UVA's commits in action this weekend.

Hun School 46, Blair Academy 14: Chris Sharp had a 99-yard touchdown run to give his team a 32-0 halftime lead.  Hun is 3-1.

Greater Johnstown 48, Westmont Hilltop 24: Kareem Gibson's 35-yard TD reception gave Johnstown a 21-17 lead that they never relinquished.  Johnstown is 5-0.

Kettle Run 38, Fauquier 14: David Eldridge caught a 27-yard touchdown, Kettle Run's first of the game.  Kettle Run is 4-2.

American 29, Charlotte 12 (Grant Polk) - Charlotte is 4-1.
West Orange 63, Cypress Creek 6 (Brandon Wilson) - West Orange is 7-0.
Buford 56, North Hall 0 (David Curry) - Buford is 6-0.
Barnegat 24, Manasquan 14 (Tanner Cowley) - Manasquan is 3-2.
Lakota West 27, Sycamore 13 (C.J. Stalker) - Lakota West is 4-3.
Cathedral Prep 49, St. Francis 14 (James Trucilla) - Prep is 7-0.
Upper Dublin 34, Plymouth-Whitemarsh 28 (Ryan Bischoff) - P-W is 4-3.
St. Joseph's Prep 35, La Salle 31 (Olamide Zacchaeus) - St. Joseph's is 3-3.
Philadelphia Northeast 38, Abraham Lincoln 0 (Gladimir Paul) - Northeast is 1-5.
River Bluff 23, South Aiken 13 (Rasool Clemons) - South Aiken is 2-5.
Gonzaga 49, Archbishop Carroll 8 (Nick Johns) - Gonzaga is 5-1.
Woodrow Wilson 44, Calvin Coolidge 6 (Kareem McDonald) - Wilson is 3-4.
Liberty 45, Culpeper County 6 (R.J. Proctor) - Liberty is 5-1.
Good Counsel 45, Bishop McNamara 21 (Myles Robinson) - OLGC is 5-1.
Patrick Henry 27, J.R. Tucker 13 (Eli Hanback) - Patrick Henry is 2-4.
Ocean Lakes 55, Cox 21 (Jahvoni Simmons) - Ocean Lakes is 6-0.
Indian River 34, Hickory 0 (Richard Burney) - Hickory is 1-5.
Altavista 14, Dan River 0 (Juan Thornhill) - Altavista is 6-0.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

midseason report card

Pretty good season so far.  That's the kind of cutting insight you've come to expect, I know.  Maybe I'm just speechless, because if you'd offered 3-3 before the season began, I'd've taken it.**  Four wins offers a lot of hope, as does the rest of the ACC itself.  A lot has gone right to make that happen.

The halfway-point bye week is a perfect time to take stock.  For no other reason than I feel like it, we'll do a basic report card and grade the team A to F.  Small spoiler: nobody gets an F.  Passing grades for all, which we certainly wouldn't have said after 12 games last season.

**In the sense of trying to maximize our wins, that is.  3-3 actually would've been more likely to put us on a path for a middle-of-the-road season, which as we know is really the worst case.  Either let's have a really good season or let's have a coaching change, as you know.

QUARTERBACKS

Grade: B-

I've been very anti-platoon, for the most part, but truth is, I think this one's over once Greyson Lambert is healthy.  The reason I have to qualify that is because Matt Johns hasn't played like a guy just keeping the seat warm.  Both these guys are redshirt sophomores, and let's not get carried away, they're not lighting the stadium on fire.  They can be a little slow in their progressions, and there are the occasional head-scratcher throws, as with any rookie QB.  But they both look good under pressure - both the game-on-the-line kind and the oh-crap-the-defense-is-here kind.  And they've done a fantastic job of making the split time work out, keeping things harmonious, and the team follows the lead of both because of it.  We've seen more QB platoons, swaps, and occasional straight-up indecision in the last decade and a half than anyone would consider healthy; this is the first one that actually seems to be working.

RUNNING BACKS

Grade: B

With the QBs, it's easy because they both get the same grade.  Here, it's more a question of how to weight the entrants.  Kevin Parks doesn't need any introduction.  The UVA run game puts out about 4.2 yards a carry, and it'd be a lot less without Parks's post-contact abilities.  At the end of the Louisville game, for example, when UVA could either clinch the win with a first down or kick a field goal and have to give the ball back to the Cardinals, Parks unleashed a manly-man run and dragged the whole pile three yards when two would've sufficed.

Parks plays big-boy football.  I also like Khalek Shepherd, who probably wouldn't distinguish himself much as a feature back but is just quick enough to provide an effective change of pace to Parks, and who knows how to find the holes.  I just wish we could see the five-star abilities that Taquan Mizzell supposedly brought.  In an effort to get him the ball in space, the playcalling has provided him with 21 receptions, enough to tie for the team lead, but he's not even averaging 5 yards a catch.  I'm not grading individual players, and further I wonder if it's fair to grade based on expectations, but Mizzell brings down the unit's GPA a notch.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Grade: B-

There's nobody you look at here and think, "that's the go-to guy, right there."  Yet someone's usually open regardless.  There's a general lack of explosiveness; you'd have thought Darius Jennings should be that X-factor guy, but he hasn't been a gameplanning threat, with only 11 catches.  Actually, the most consistent deepish-ball guy is Andre Levrone; only nine catches, but most of them over 18 yards.

Still, most of these guys are pretty big, and the size has worked in their favor.  The quarterbacks spread the ball around a lot, so nobody's putting up huge stats, but Canaan Severin is having a breakout season all the same, and Miles Gooch is the offense's feel-good story of the year.  And there are times when I think to myself, man, we are really going to like Doni Dowling in the future.  Consistency escapes him, but c'mon, he's a true freshman.

Lack of speed and a true go-to player holds the grade for this unit back, but despite that, they get the job done.  Most of the players on the unit will have the chance to develop along with their quarterback(s), so the future is fairly bright as well.

TIGHT ENDS

Grade: D

I don't know how their blocking is, but as I'm about to talk about being unimpressed by the run-blocking, it's probably not any great shakes.  There's no production at all in the passing game; Zach Swanson has probably dropped at least as many passes as he's caught, and he and Rob Burns have combined for all of four catches.  Swanson is a particular disappointment because he looked like a useful player last year.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Grade: C

On the one hand, you have to give the line credit for even playing as well as they have with the constant shuffling.  The first three games saw three different starting lineups.  And the pass-blocking has been undeniably decent.  Only decent, because one, our QBs are much better at avoiding a rush than Watford was last year, and two, Steve Fairchild's short passing game and relative tilt toward the run really limit the chances for the rush to produce a sack.  UVA has allowed just five sacks in six games, an average that's good for 16th in the country.  I don't think the pass-blocking is as good as that stat shows, but you can't deprive the line of a fair share of credit, either.

Still, the run-blocking problems have carried over from last year.  It's the same deal - the line generates little if any push.  They're not bad at steering a lineman out of the way, but they can't shove him out of the way.  (I've also grumbled to myself about the quality of blocks from pulling guards, who simply miss them too often.) The way Kevin Parks runs, if the line could get half a yard of push it'd probably boost his average by a yard, and he'd be on pace for another 1,000-yard season.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Grade: A-

Only held back from a straight A because there are usually only three of them; it's a lineman and not a linebacker that comes out for the nickel package.  That and there's less rotation than I'd like.

Picky picky, though.  Eli Harold is beastly, and the scary thing for ACC offenses is that he's become an every-down lineman instead of a pass-rush specialist.  David Dean's development curve has taken off nicely, and he's made quite a few more tackles than a team should be able to expect out of an interior lineman.  And Mike Moore has blossomed after a slow start to his career; he's the defense's Canaan Severin.  P.S. - none of those guys are seniors.  The ACC is invited to come and get some next year.

LINEBACKERS

Grade: A+

So good.  Such sweet goody goodness.  On a scale from 1 to 10, these guys go all the way to Tony Bennett.  Daquan Romero has 48 tackles, 5 for loss, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 recoveries, an interception, and the least flashy stat line of the three starting linebackers, which is mind-boggling.  Romero's specialty is sniffing out screen passes.  This is a guy that can blow them up like nobody else.

Henry Coley is going to play on Sundays.  Ask people around the program and they'll tell you who quarterbacks the defense on the field.  Jon Tenuta likes to get all blitzy, as per his reputation, so Coley has six sacks to go along with the rest of the good stuff he does, but he's found his way into the backfield on run plays too.  Two years ago I did a midseason review and called Coley "decent, but not, like, amazing or anything."  Exact words to describe how I felt about his backup work with Steve Greer playing in front.  Last year at the same time I was duly impressed.  This year, I mean, damn.

And then we come to Max Valles - the Justin Anderson of football.  Last year he rushed the passer and had a lot to learn about the rest of linebacking.  This year he's playing both defensive end and actual linebacker, and the results: five sacks, one pick-six, seven swatted passes, a fumble recovery.  And this is a true sophomore (albeit also with a FUMA-shirt season.)  We've been told since last fall that Valles was the most freakish guy on the team; watching him channel that into actual football skills makes me drool with anticipation.

CORNERBACKS

Grade: C+

The only thing on the defense that's been a disappointment.  And even then, not a huge disappointment.  Statistically, things aren't terrible.  The only regular CB without a pick is DreQuan Hoskey, who was a pleasant surprise but has probably hit his development ceiling.  Maurice Canady has two, and five breakups as well, not bad.  Brandon Phelps looks like he's playing his natural position now; he's a better cornerback than safety.

Still, sometimes the unit just misses on the eye test.  Tim Harris in particular looks overmatched.  Phelps and even Canady get beat more often than should've been expected.  The quality of play can change series to series and even play to play.  Like many things with this UVA team, a little consistency would go a long way.

SAFETIES

Grade: A

I had this idea a while ago that you could evaluate the play of defenders, particularly safeties and linebackers, by the average gain of plays on tackles they made.  If a safety has a ton of tackles but on average they're pretty far from the line of scrimmage, it's not that he's a fantastic safety, it's just that the defense in front of him probably blows.  I never followed through on it because it turns out it takes a really long damn time to put together.

I bring this up because I'm fairly sure it's a metric where Quin Blanding and Anthony Harris would shine.  Harris is another player who's going to the big leagues next year.  The eight interceptions from last year aren't getting repeated and never were, but he's showing off a lot of instinctiveness in run support.

Same goes for Blanding, only, Blanding is a true freshman.  True freshmen at free safety are scary, because that's where wrong decisions become touchdowns instead of four extra yards.  And UVA has allowed nine pass plays of 30 yards or more (what I consider the threshold for "long"), which is a high-ish number.  On the other hand, have we ever watched the offense chuck to some guy who's all kinds of open with nary a soul behind him?  No.  Blanding was an absolutely elite recruit, and he's playing like it.

KICKERS

Grade: A

Let's stop and give some credit to the footy part of football, too.  Alec Vozenilek is averaging 44 yards per punt, an excellent number for college that would put UVA a shade outside the top-20 in average if not for the blocked one that went nine yards (and was attributed to "team" rather than Voz's average.)  Ian Frye has only missed one FG, a 46-yarder, and is 4-for-5 from beyond 40 with a season long of 47 so we forgive him for that.  College teams don't always have dependable placekicking and solid punting like this.

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So, like I said - pretty good.  Last year I gave the receivers an F and the quarterback a D+; it's that drastic improvement in the passing game that's as responsible as anything for the turnaround from 2-4 (and clearly on the way to 2-10, which was noticeable even then) to 4-2.

There's still work to be done.  This team could easily be 2-4 and winless in the ACC right now, because they did a poor job in both games of holding onto leads.  They led Louisville 20-7 and Pitt 24-3 (and for that matter, led BYU at halftime), and failed to finish the chokehold.  Louisville took a 21-20 lead and then gift-wrapped a muffed punt; Pitt simply ran out of time.

That said, the Hoos didn't lose; they might've done a few things wrong, but they did more things right, and closed out when they had to.  They didn't stumble into 2-0 by accident.  The second quarter against Pitt was as good as they've looked at any time in years.

So - because there's a little bit of duct tape and wishes in the equation that holds the winning record together, this team could conceivably drop right out of bowl eligibility.  And because the defense is so full of NFL-y goodness (and I have decreed that we will call it the sack-line defense) and the Coastal just as flawed as it looked before the season, this team could conceivably play in the ACC CG.  (I mean, North Carolina's defense is a freak show, and not in a good way.)  Next week, bring on the Dookies.

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Also, thanks to everyone who offered feedback on the upcoming format change; I'm compiling and sorting the responses - really - so if you haven't put in your two cents, feel free to do so, as it's a great help in deciding what exactly the future of the blog will look like.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

less is more

There's gonna be some changes around here.

Some lengthy background: For, oh, I'd say about a year and half now, I've been kicking around the idea of retirement.  That accelerated starting early this spring, and about a month ago I made the big decision that This Is It.  Here's how that was gonna go: I would keep on plugging away until around February, and then announce the big goodbye to take effect in the summer; spring sports coverage would've been intermixed with retrospectives like my top ten favorite posts and so on.  I don't like the idea of just abruptly stopping, you see.

The reasons for this might well be obvious to anyone who's been a long-time reader.  I've let all kinds of stuff that I intended to do just fall by the wayside.  I've skipped quite a few days that should've been posting days.  Far too often I've caught myself saying, "oh jeez, I still have to write something today."  And then sometimes I'd be like "screw it, I'll just do it tomorrow."  When it becomes "have to" instead of "really, really want to," that's a sign.  And the fact is, real life is simply catching up, and catching up hard.  From 2008 to 2010 I had a job with insanely nice hours and a 10-minute commute.  From 2010 to 2013 I was either doing nothing at all or going to school.  Now I have a job, more to do outside the job (mostly involving sailing, which is fair to call my passion) and at the same time, less inspiration for ideas, which was always the toughest part of this gig anyway.  Writing has been filling up much too much of my leftover free time.

Naturally, it sort of bummed me out, once I'd made that decision.  I've always been kind of bad at quitting stuff, but, every athlete that's ever retired probably didn't want to stop playing, they just wanted to not play more than they wanted to play, and of course I was going to be conflicted about something like that.  That's how I was thinking about it, and I figured, well, what I will do is, after some period of time, look for a place, not just any place but the right kind of place, where I could write part-time, once a week or so.  And leave this site open as a portal to the game highlights I used to make, which is one of those things that fell completely off the wagon and I wish hadn't.

So that takes you from about 18 months ago to about one month ago.  Further into present day, more like, oh, two hours ago, I had an epiphany: dude, if you only want to write once a week, just write once a week.  It's not like you have to find someone to let you do that.

So that's what I'll do.  Starting at the end of football season (no abrupt stops, remember.  Until the VT game is over, things will go as they have been, as I prefer not to just jump into anything midstream) I'm switching the format of this blog to once a week, on Mondays.  It'll probably be a pretty long post.  I plan on using the whole week to write it, not just sitting down on Mondays and banging it out.  Just type in stuff as it comes to me.  See something I like, spend 15 minutes on it, move on.  See a game, throw a thought onto e-paper, move on.  And then publish the results on Mondays.  It'll probably be less coolly analytical and more about the tao of Virginia, but hell if I know, really.

It means the end, of course, of some regular features.  I doubt I'll do full regular game previews (I might do really big ones like NCAA tournament games....or I might not.)  Probably no more recruit profiles (except that I'll finish up this season's.)  I may actually be able to bring the recruiting board back (another thing that I would've liked to not have dropped.)  I don't think I'll do Senior Seasons anymore.  I really like doing lacrosse bracketology and will probably continue.  I hope this lets me find the time to gin up more highlights, because I'm sitting on a huge passel of games.  And I'll definitely still be doing Cavalier of the Year.

Along these lines, the mic is open for suggestions, specifically about what you'd really miss if I stopped doing it.  Whether I used to do it and stopped, or still do; anything from the game preview graphics to the previews themselves to other team season previews, whatever.  I'll try and work it in if feasible, meaning, if it doesn't turn me back into a semi-daily and if it doesn't turn the actual weekly post into a compilation of repetitive stuff.

I have to admit, I'm rather looking forward to the change - it'll give me more of my life back and let me continue being opinionated on the Internet, minus the annoyance and tiny guilt twinge of having skipped yet another day where someone might've been looking for something they didn't get.  I can put my own hobby back on my own schedule, and hopefully improve the product as well.

P.S. the promised midseason review goes tomorrow.